Sunday, November 9, 2014

Nursery Favorites and the Early-Teens Talkie Boom -- November 9, 2014

This post is part of  the Fairy Tale Blogathon, hosted by Fritzi at Movies Silently.  Be sure to click on most images to see larger versions.  

When I was a kid most people knew that the first talkie was The Jazz Singer and many of them probably knew it was released in 1927 or thereabouts.  I don't know if most people know that nowadays.  In any event, when I became interested in movies, I began reading about them and I learned that there were talkies, or at least movies with sound, long before The Jazz Singer.  In Kevin Brownlow's The Parade's Gone By, I read the reminiscences of a man who made talkies for Gaumont  before World War One. 

I later learned that there had been a real talkie boom between about 1907 and 1914, the beginning of the First World War. 

The Electrical Review, 29-June-1894

In 1891, an interviewer asked Thomas Edison if he would have a novelty ready for the Chicago World Columbian Exposition in 1893.  Edison said  "I have a machine projected, but the details are not perfected yet. My intention is to have such a happy combination of electricity and photography that a man can sit in his own parlor and see reproduced on a screen the forms of the players in an opera produced on a distant stage, and, as he sees their movements, he will hear the sound of their voices as they talk or sing or laugh. When the machine is perfected, which it will be long before it can be exhibited at the fair, each little muscle of the singer's face will be seen to work, his facial expression with its every change will be exactly reproduced, and the stride and positions will be natural, and will vary as do those of the person himself. That is only one part of what the machine will do. To the sporting fraternity, I can say that before long it will be possible to apply this system to prize fights and boxing exhibitions. The whole scene, with the comments of the spectators, the talk of the seconds, the noise of the blows, and so on, will be faithfully transferred." (source: Manufacturer and Builder / Volume 23, Issue 6, June 1891).

Edison did not perfect his machine by the time of the exposition. 

Edison's Kinetoscope (from the Greek for "movement-viewer") was a device that allowed one person to watch a film of about 20-40 seconds.  In the illustration, note that the film ran in a continuous loop.  (Source: "The Edison Kinetoscope," The Electrical Engineer, 07-November-1894)

By late 1894 or early 1895, Edison's Kinetoscope team, led by WKL (William Kennedy Laurie) Dickson, produced this experimental film.  The mute film became famous, but the sound recording was lost until someone found a broken cylinder at the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey.  The label said "Violin by WKL Dickson with Kineto."  Restorers repaired the cylinder in 1998 and Walter Murch, who has edited the sound on many of Francis Ford Coppola's movies, put the sound together with the image. 

The "Dickson Experimental Sound Film" illustrates two of the issues which faced early sound film makers.  Before the invention of the electronic microphone, large horns like the one shown in the movie were used to gather the sound to be recorded.  The horn had to be close to the source of the sound, so in this case it appeared in the shot.  If the phonograph with its recording horn was close to the actors, it could not be close to the camera, which made it difficult to create a mechanism to keep the camera and the phonograph in sync.  If the camera was too close to the phonograph with the recording horn, the horn would pick up the sound of the camera. 

As far as we know, this film was not released to the public and Edison's team never showed it with the sound synchronized.  The Edison company produced a Kinetophone, which was a Kintetoscope peephole viewer which had a cylinder phonograph in the cabinet.  The customer could watch a movie and listen to a record through headphones, but there was no attempt at synchronization.  Edison's team gave up trying to make synchronized sound films for a while, but other people tried to make sound movies. 

In 1900, the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre was an attraction at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. It featured a program of short films with sound. Some, like Sarah Bernhardt in the duel scene from Hamlet, had live sound effects. Others used records played along with the projected film, but, there was no linkage between the projector and the phonograph. The projectionist had to crank the projector faster or slower to stay in sync with the phonograph.

Moving Picture World, 21-September-1907
Léon Gaumont was a French film pioneer. In 1903 he patented a system for films synchronized with disk records called the Chronophone.  The Chronophone addressed another problem faced by early sound films.  The screen had to be at the front of the audience and the projector had to be at the rear, in order to allow the image to be large enough.  If the phonograph was at the back of the audience near the projector, it would spoil the illusion that the people on the screen were talking or singing.  The distance added to the difficulty of synchronizing the image and the sound.  Another difficulty was making the sound loud enough to be heard in a large auditorium.  This was difficult before electric amplification. 

Moving Picture World, 27-March-1909
Gaumont solved the problems by running the phonograph and the projector from a single electric source.  The projectionist had a control switch ("The Chronophone Synchronizer" in the illustration above) that allowed him to speed up or slow down the projector.  Amplification was done using compressed air.  Some people complained that the sound was painfully loud. 

Gaumont's original sound movies were made using pre-recorded records.  The actors would lip-synch to the music.  I saw one that used an Enrico Caruso record.  Caruso did not appear in the movie. Pioneer director Alice Guy-Blaché directed many of the Gaumont sound films.

Ciné-Journal, 14-January-1910

By about 1910, Gaumont had come up with a way to record sound while the pictures were being taken.  This image shows "The new Chronophone.  Registering simultaneously the sound and the images."  This version of the Chronophone, with the pneumatic amplifier, played every week at the largest theater in the world, the Gaumont Palace in Paris from 1911 to 1917.  World War One, which killed the French film industry also killed the Chronophone. 

Pioneering German inventor and filmmaker Oskar Messter made Biophon sound films between 1909 and 1917.  Like most German films from that period, I think they are lost. 

The Nickelodeon, 18-February-1911

"For a dozen years a number of inventors in Europe and America have been trying to achieve a perfect synchronization of the biograph and the graphophone so as to give speech to the figures that move across the picture.  The problem appears to have been solved at last and solved by a Frenchman ... To reach the desired result, as he explains, the inventor must overcome two difficulties.  First, he must so improve the graphophone that it will faithfully reproduce the quality of the voice.  Next he must find an extremely accurate device for making the graphophone and the biograph keep time ... At present M. Gaumont's chronophone records gesture and voice at several yards' distance; consequently it is now possible to create talking motion pictures that will enable posterity to see and hear the great men of our day almost as well as we do."

Moving Picture News, 29-April-1911

" .. there has always been one thing lacking which has limited the field of the talking picture.  This one thing was the impossibility of obtaining complicated subjects, particularly talking subjects, as distinguished from singing subjects, owing to the fact that in recording it was necessary first to make a record of the sounds and then to have  the singers pose and repeat the words in unison with a phonograph playing the sound record previously made ... By the new system it is possible to record both the sounds and the views at the same time so that the most complicated subjects may be taken in absolute synchronism." 

Moving Picture World, 16-October-1909

This article mentions the Gaumont Chronophone and two other sound film systems, the Cameraphone and the Cinephone. 

Moving Picture World, 06-March-1909
"A cheap form of synchronizer, the Cinephone, which is being marketed by the Warwick Trading Company of London, will shortly be placed on the American market."  The Cinephone had "no physical connection ... between the gramophone at the foot of the sheet and the projector at the back of the hall."  Instead, there was a lighted dial on the phonograph which contained a pointer that showed the progress of the record.  There was a similar dial in a corner of the screen.  The projectionist cranked his projector at a rate to keep the two dials in sync.  This was a heavy dependence on the skill of the projectionist. 

Daily Arizona Silver Belt, 20-December-1908

I have not been able to learn how the Cameraphone synchronizer worked, but the company had theaters all over the county, even in Globe, Arizona.  Note that there are two Cameraphone reels on the program.  The first features (tiny letters) "Imitation of" (big letters) "Geo. M. Cohan, 'The Yankee Doodle Boy'." 

Moving Picture World, 24-October-1914
I don't know how the Renfax system worked, but I like the design of their ads.  "No Singer Required."  "Vaudeville on the Screen."  "Four Releases Weekly."  "Cost Less Than a Singer." 

Moving Picture World, 25-January-1913

Edison's people went back to work on talking films around 1910.  Their new product was the Kinetophone, a projector/cylinder phonograph combination.  It used a mechanical connection that ran the length of the theater to join the projector and the phonograph.  This was probably difficult to set up and maintain.  It used a Higham friction wheel amplifier.  This was not as powerful as Gaumont's pneumatic amplifier.  "Any first class operator can handle."  All the early sound systems placed a burden on the projectionist.  Second-class operators probably could not make them work. 

Few Kinetophone movies survive with both their film and sound elements available.  One is this promotional movie thought to have been made in 1912.  Note that the speaker, who may be actor WE Ramsey, speaks loudly and clearly, rolling his r's dramatically.  He also uses strong gestures.  All of these things are standard features of public speaking in the time before electronic amplification.  The loud, clear voice would be an asset when trying to be heard by a distant recording horn. 

The most famous Kinetophone movie, and for many years the only one that was easy to see, is "Nursery Favorites," made in 1913.  In a single take of about five and one-half minutes, it crams ten people, a dancing dog and a big spider into a cramped set.  The events mix characters from nursery rhymes (Mother Goose) and fairy tales (Jack the Giant Killer). 

After the opening title, before the music starts, we see one and one half men standing at stage right.  The one who is fully visible raises his arms and the music starts.  A trio of men come onto the stage singing and holding up what they say are bags of gold.  They sing something about loyal subjects, and then throw the bags to the floor with a well-synchronized thump. 

The men drop to their knees and then we hear the "Fee Fi Fo Fum" of the Giant.  He sings about grinding bones to make his bread, but then he breaks into "A Jolly Old Giant Am I," accompanied by the trio. 

They laugh and then a pretty girl in a white dress dances out of the fireplace.  She holds a long wand.  "I am the Queen of the Fairies" she says.  The Queen of the Fairies is played by Viola Dana, who later became a big star.  She says she will cast a spell over the Giant.  She dances back into the fireplace. 

We hear a shout, and Old King Cole, Mother Goose, a Jolly Tar and Little Miss Muffet enter from stage left.  Mother Goose sings "Mary, Mary Quite Contrary." 

The Jolly Tar (a sailor) asks Little Miss Muffet for a lock of her hair.  She sings her song in an annoying little-girl voice until a big spider sits down beside her.  She leaps away in horror.  After the spider is scared away, the Jolly Tar and Miss Muffet dance. 

The Queen of the Fairies pops in again from the fireplace, walking with a young boy.  Old King COle asks who he is and he says he is Jack the Giant Killer.  Jack toasts "May we always be friends" and the Jolly Tar carries him over to stand on the tall chair behind the Giant. 

Old King Cole sings a patter song that reminded me of Gilbert and Sullivan.  The three men become his fiddlers three.  The King dances energetically. 

Mother Goose sings, accompanied by the fiddlers while the Jolly Tar and Miss Muffet dance and King Cole leads in a costumed dog who dances on his back legs and barks.  And that is the end. 

I have to admire the cast who got through the whole time without a flub.  Listeners will note that the sound quality is rather flat, but that is common with acoustic recordings.  Everyone speaks and sings loudly and clearly.  I think the music comes across well.  I wonder where the orchestra sat in the studio.  Notice that there is no editing during the sound portion of the movie. 

A few more Kinetophone movies survive with their sound recordings, but I have never seen them. 

An immigrant from France, Eugene Lauste, who had worked with WKL Dickson on the Kinetoscope team, began developing sound on film in 1910.  He could never raise enough money to make it work, but it ultimately proved to be the right way to join pictures and sound. 

Here are some helpful resources if you would like to learn more about early sound film efforts.  Electronic microphones and loudspeakers helped to make sound films practical in the 1920s. 

Spencer Sundel wrote an excellent essay on Edison's sound films:
The Pre-History of Sound Cinema, Part 1: Thomas Edison and W.K.L. Dickson

Sadly, I haven't been able to find a Part II. 

Silent Era hosts the Progressive Silent Film List, which has a startling list of early sound films:
Early Sound Films of the Silent Era

The Thomas Edison National Historical Park site has some Kinetophone  sound tracks and some actor auditions:

This post is part of the Fairy Tale Blogathon hosted by Fritzi at Movies Silently. Thank you to Fritzi for all the hard work.  Thank you to everyone who visited and I encourage you to read as many posts as you can, and leave comments.  Bloggers love comments. 


  1. This is such an excellent article! I enjoyed every word of it.

  2. Great fun to read and thanks for joining in! With Mr. WE Ramsey, I am reminded of Groucho Marx's quip in Horse Feathers in response to Margaret Dumont's stentorian tones, "No trains will be sold after the magazines have left the station..."

  3. timelesshollywood -- Thank you for the kind words. I enjoyed researching and writing it.
    Fritzi -- I'm so happy you had fun. You are right, the last people who employed Mr Ramsey's style of public speaking were train station announcers and conductors making announcements on trains. I never thought of that till you pointed it out.

  4. These early film+sound clips are fascinating. This is a part of film history I know very little about, so I was glad to read your well-researched article.

  5. Silver Screenings -- I'm glad you found it interesting. We are lucky to live today when we can see so many things like these early sound films. When I was a young movie fan, it was a lot harder.

  6. Bravo!
    I was left speechless with a documentary about these early silents (here it is called "Learning to Speak"). I watched scenes of the Sarah Bernhardt flick and the little Caruso film. But nothing compares to your essay.
    You did a marvelous, marvelous job! This Nursery Favorites is really surprising: hard to believe it is more than 100 years old. If I watched it wihout further information, I'd say it was made in the early 30s, and I'd be so wrong!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

  7. Bravo!
    I was left speechless with a documentary about these early silents (here it is called "Learning to Speak"). I watched scenes of the Sarah Bernhardt flick and the little Caruso film. But nothing compares to your essay.
    You did a marvelous, marvelous job! This Nursery Favorites is really surprising: hard to believe it is more than 100 years old. If I watched it wihout further information, I'd say it was made in the early 30s, and I'd be so wrong!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

  8. Thank you, Lê. I'm very happy you visited and enjoyed it. I have seen that documentary. It is wonderful. "Nursery Favorites" is quite a surprise. Before people could see it easily, some books spread bad stories about it, probably based on seeing it projected at the wrong speed. I am looking forward to reading your contribution. It is taking me a long time to get through all the essays this time.

  9. Amazing and informative read - thank you! I'm guilty of not watching as many silents as I 'should' but the era is endlessly fascinating, and I love to see how the 'film' we know today grew from such auspicious yet experimental beginnings. Will certainly be doing some further reading using the resources you handily provided :)

  10. Thank you, girlsdofilm. The resources are nice and I also should have mentioned a dvd set called Discovering Cinema, which has one documentary on the development of color movies and one on the development of talkies, which Lê mentioned in an earlier comment. Both include a bunch of examples as extras. Well worth looking for. Thanks for visiting.


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